‘Culture’ as a Leadership Verb

Guest blog by Laura Wilson, IBA Vice President-Communications

In the late 1800s, the son of a Japanese noodle maker patented a process for culturing pearls by seeding oysters. Though he was not the first to patent pearl culturing, he was the first to master a technique to produce consistently round results. Today, few would recognize the names of the original patent holders, but the name of Kokichi Mikimoto lives on. Less well known is that all Mikimoto pearls are cultured, not natural.

These prized pearls, which result from deliberate effort, serve as a metaphor for another sort of culturing, that which takes place every day in workplaces, including financial institutions. Each organization has its own culture, recognizable or not, and that culture is formed either by default or by design. The thoughtful bank leader will ensure that workplace culture develops by choice. Too much is at stake — employee morale, customer satisfaction and profitability — to let it happen by chance. Especially for financial institutions, in service to shareholders, consumers and communities at large, cultural strength can make or break the organization.

The first step in shaping the culture of a bank is to evaluate its current state. But what exactly is workplace culture? Theories abound, with paraphrased definitions ranging from “the sum total of behaviors, actions and attitudes” to “collective mindset” to “the way things are done when no one is looking.” Overlooked, though, is that the word “culture” is both a noun and a verb. Let us then define work culture in two ways:

  • As a noun, “culture” is a set of unified beliefs put into action.
  • As a verb, “to culture” is to intentionally grow a set of beliefs that unify and motivate.

Culture as a noun. Even if a bank culture has not been defined, nonetheless that organization does have a culture. Depending on the level of unity of beliefs among staff, the culture will either be healthy or unhealthy. If there is a lack of unified beliefs, that disunity itself becomes the bank’s culture … and it is not a desirable one. At best, a disjointed workplace will be stymied with redundancy and inefficiency; at worst, it can be plagued with staff rivalry and “silos” that fail to communicate.

Fortunately, worst-case scenarios are the exception, not the rule. However, since effective bank presidents and CEOs continually seek to improve their organizations, it can only help to periodically assess culture. If a bank’s culture, as a noun, is defined by how beliefs are put into action, the bank’s mission, vision and values statements should correlate with what employees are actually doing. In a healthy culture, employees are unified in purpose (mission), collectively see where the bank is headed (vision) and agree on how best to arrive there (values). In this robust environment, employee actions enhance the bank’s mission, vision and values.

Culture is further revealed in the unspoken. Every workplace has tacit understandings. For instance, the training of new bank employees typically will specify how to greet and interact with customers, but interaction among co-workers may be left to inference, and thus is unspoken. When there is unity in the unspoken rules, and when those rules give rise to behaviors that benefit the bank as a whole, its culture is healthy.

Culture as a verb. Just as a cultured pearl is formed by deliberate action, bank culture needs to be designed, with able leaders guiding the process. Though at times a strong culture may form organically — such as when a family-owned bank brings generations of embedded culture into the workplace — organizational consultants warn against allowing corporate culture to happen on its own. If leadership does not consciously shape culture, the workplace could fall into a default culture, often determined by the most forceful personalities present.

Another risk to not consciously shaping culture is that a cluster of cultures might form, each with its own leaders, values and directional views. These mini cultures become institutional silos that can strain communications, drain energy and undermine team-building. The result may be office politicking and an undercurrent of discord, to the detriment of the bank’s bottom line.

Take a hard look at your organization’s culture and ask, “Is there unity of beliefs that align with mission, vision and values? Do employee actions support those beliefs?” Then find ways to measure these variables, engaging third-party help if needed. Customer satisfaction surveys can be revealing, as well as candid conversations with staff. In fact employee engagement is key to changing culture for the better.

Throughout the process, leadership must remain clearly at the helm, especially if a substantial cultural overhaul is due. Several years ago, the CEO of an Indiana bank brought in outside consultation to invigorate the organization’s culture. The result was a renewed culture brimming with upbeat messaging, cheerful staff and customers so satisfied that they wrote notes of appreciation. Yet during the process, a few employees were uncomfortable and chose to exit. The CEO did not recalibrate the new standards to please the dissenters, but instead held true to the new culture to allow it to fully form; ultimately, the bank thrived.

Improving the culture of any workplace takes time and determination, but is well worth the leadership effort, particularly for service-oriented banks. Leaders who embrace culture as a verb should keep sights set on mission, vision and values to ensure that cultural change is consistent with overriding goals. To circle back to the analogy of cultured pearls — while it may not seem “natural” to consciously shape a bank’s culture, the result can be a gleaming gem of an organization.


One Response to ‘Culture’ as a Leadership Verb

  1. Sonja Kriegsmann says:

    Great analogy! Culture is one of the most difficult and most important aspects of any organization. It is a challenge to make the perception the reality, but those entities that are able to build a positive culture for both employees and customers/clients are bound to succeed. Very uplifting and thought provoking post.

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